Or consider a major airline’s website that, even
today, times out if the form goes untouched for a
while. This is like a department-store clerk saying: “I’m sorry, you’ve been standing in the same
area for too long. To continue shopping please
leave the store and come back.” If you must start
over, how likely are you to walk into the same
Business-wise, form design is not solely
an issue of customer satisfaction and retention. Usability issues can affect the bottom line
directly and extremely. The book describes a Web
retailer whose revenue increased by $300 million
after a small change to the checkout process (the
company eliminated the requirement for shoppers to register before checking out).
A well-designed form is barely noticeable. But
that doesn’t mean the design process is. Like most
design problems, achieving a concise design that
seems, in retrospect, obvious, requires much
work. There are myriad factors to consider, each
with multiple alternatives, each with its pros and
cons. Should we have one long form or a sequence
of short forms? Should help be provided in-line
with the form controls, on the side, or on top?
At what point should we validate fields and deal
with errors? You could fill a book with the subtle-ties of form design.
Fortunately, Wroblewski has written that book.
Drawing on years of experience designing for
eBay and Yahoo, he has cataloged the major considerations involved in creating forms. He walks
the difficult line between writing for novice and
For beginning interaction designers and de
facto designers with nondesign job titles such
as engineer, product manager, or founder,
Wroblewski’s book serves as a primer on interaction design. It covers basics like thinking of the
problem from the user’s perspective, rather than
the machine’s. It covers the differences between
GUI elements like the radio buttons and drop-down menus.
For veteran designers the book serves as a convenient reference and cheat sheet of things to
consider. Before embarking on a new form design
project it would be worthwhile flipping through the
examples and advice to become re-sensitized to the
issues. Plus, there are bound to be some insights
and ideas that old timers hadn’t thought of.
I picked up a few nuggets along the way. One
of them pertains to the placement of labels next
to fields. I already had a bias toward right-justified
labels positioned just to the left of the fields, a practice Wroblewski affirms. What was news to me was
how having labels above the fields is even more efficient. Citing an eye-tracking study, Wroblewski demonstrates that this arrangement allows the user to
take in both the label and the field with a single eye
fixation. It’s a good design choice for layouts that can
afford the extra height this approach requires. It’s
also handy when the form will be internationalized,
because it leaves plenty of elbow room for the labels
to stretch out when translated.
Another assumption Wroblewski challenges is that
users must always register before they get to use our
Web app. It’s a logical and standard way to proceed,
but there are costs. We are making a demand from
users before demonstrating value, the opposite of a
normal sales process. It’s therefore a source of friction and a point at which we lose people. Wroblewski
gives examples of a different strategy: Play first,
ask questions later. Drop the new user right into the
application to begin experimenting. No friction, no
demands, no commitment required. If it works for
them, they will be willing to register to save their
data or to access other juicy features. Wroblewski
calls this strategy “gradual engagement,” because we
tempt the user with our product in stages.
Another discovery I found fascinating pertained
to marketing questions like: “What’s your household
income?” or “What is your date of birth?” These
intrusive questions are on the form not for the user,
but for the marketing department. For eBay, they
were a major source of attrition, and removing them
resulted in far more successful registrations. The
fascinating part is that by asking the marketing
questions later, after registration, significantly more
people were willing to answer them.
As one would hope for a book written by a designer, it is highly usable. The tone is straightforward,
clear, and friendly. It is loaded with example screen-shots, making it quick to read or skim. Every chapter
ends by summarizing best practices.
The book is also thorough. When I began reviewing it, I made a list of design issues relating to forms
to see if they were addressed. It fared well. In-line
validation of fields as you go? Check. The perils of
putting field labels within the fields themselves?
Check. Strategies for revealing contingent fields?
Check. Dynamically checking user names for availability and passwords for security as the user types?